Dairy calves fed, reared for beef may be lifeline for Pa. farms, researcher says

August 10, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Penn State Extension beef specialist Tara Felix started the Calf-fed Holsteins Reared for Beef Demonstration Project three years ago — a collaborative venture sponsored by the PA Beef Producers Working Group — she viewed the initiative as showing dairy farmers how to boost revenue from their operations. 

Now, with the financial crisis gripping Pennsylvania's dairy industry, she sees the effort as an option for many dairy producers in the state to keep their farms alive — to avoid going under financially and losing their generations-old family enterprises.

The project will be highlighted by tours at Penn State's Ag Progress Days, Aug. 14-16, at Rock Springs. Tours will take place at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. all three days of the show.

In the demonstration project, housed at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's Livestock Evaluation Center not far from the Ag Progress Days site, Holstein calves have received steroidal implants to increase growth, like 90 percent of beef cattle receive. Steers were started on grain and transitioned to a ration containing corn, silage, distillers dried grains and minerals.

"The demonstration project has shown the economic value of implants and feeding each Holstein animal individually, monitoring individual animal intake, increasing feed efficiency, and implementing a growth feed intake system," said Felix,an assistant professor of animal science in the College of Agricultural Sciences.  

"Our dairy industry in the state is currently in trouble — I think if you are not in the dairy realm, you don't realize how much it is struggling. A lot of dairies are going out of business, co-ops are closing and there are some pretty scary projections of what dairy in Pennsylvania might look like in the future."

Pennsylvania is ranked sixth in total milk production nationally, according to the Center for Dairy Excellence. The Commonwealth's approximately 525,000 cows produce more than 10.8 billion pounds of milk annually. The state places second nationally for the largest number of dairy farms, behind only Wisconsin.

However, Felix said, several factors are making it difficult for many farmers to pay their bills: the demand for fluid milk is way down, supply is up and milk prices have plummeted; one of the nation’s leading beverage companies is terminating milk-procurement contracts in the state; and a well-recognized multi-national retailer is building a huge milk processing and distribution plant in the Midwest. Felix believes that developing a beef component to their businesses and utilizing calves generated by their dairies could be the difference between insolvency and hanging on for many farmers.

When she launched this project — a collaboration between Penn State Extension, the Center for Beef Excellence and the Pennsylvania Cattlemen's Association, with support from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and meat packer JBS — Felix just wanted to bolster the dairy industry.

"But it is about way more than that now," she explained. "We have more than 500,000 dairy cows in the state, and each one of those cows eventually will enter the beef supply. But each one of those cows also has a calf every single year to keep milk production going. Some of those become replacement heifers, but the rest are capable of producing high-quality beef. We need to take advantage of that."

It is not widely known outside agricultural circles, Felix noted, but Holsteins fed and reared properly can produce beef that is nicely marbled and the same or even better quality than Angus and other beef cattle. But, to get high-quality steaks and other desired cuts of meat, the animals have to be managed for beef production. That's what the Calf-fed Holsteins Reared for Beef Demonstration Project is all about.

"Many of those calves are steers, which have no value in the dairy industry, so farmers face the challenge of making those animals valuable," Felix said.

"They have dairy-type characteristics, which means they don't muscle very well or grow as efficiently as beef cattle. However, we can take advantage of additional technologies, as we are demonstrating in this project, to improve dairy steers as beef animals. We don't want them to be just a byproduct of our dairy industry."

In the last five years there has been a fourfold increase in the amount of beef coming from fed Holstein cattle, Felix said. "The results of our demonstration project, which can be seen at Ag Progress Days, will show Pennsylvania dairy farmers how to ramp up their participation in the beef market."

  • one cow

    More than 500,000 dairy cows in Pennsylvania have a calf every single year to keep milk production going. Some of those become replacement heifers, but the rest are capable of producing high-quality beef. More dairy producers in the state need to take advantage of that, according to Penn State Extension experts.

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    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated August 10, 2018